Vietnam Travel FAQ 1
By Jan Dodd, Author of The Rough Guide to Vietnam
Answers to your questions on Vietnam travel. Climate, time difference, language, money,and more.
What is the climate like in Vietnam?
What is the time difference?
What do I need to know regarding visas to enter Vietnam?
What medical precautions do I need to take?
How safe is Vietnam?
Is language a problem, or can I get by in English?
Should I take my money in cash or travellers' cheques?
Where can I change money?
How widely accepted are credit cards?
Can I get cash on my credit card?
Continue on to Vietnam Travel FAQ Part 2
What is the climate like in Vietnam?Vietnam has a particularly complicated climate and, like elsewhere in the world, weather patterns have been changing over recent years. The situation described below is therefore only an indication of the type of weather you can expect.
Northern Vietnam Climate
Starting in the north, autumn (September to December) is undoubtedly the most pleasant season. At this time of year it's generally warm (average temps above 20°C), dry and sunny in the delta, though you'll need warm clothes up in the mountains and on the waters of Ha Long Bay. Winter (December to February) can be surprisingly bitter as cold air sweeps south from China bringing fine, persistent mists and temperatures as low as 10°C. Things begin to warm up again in March, which ushers in a period of good, spring weather before the summer heat begins in earnest in May, closely followed by the rainy season in June. This combination makes for hot, sticky weather which takes many people by surprise. Temperatures, which can occasionally reach 40°C, average 30°C, while humidity hovers around 70-75%. The rain comes in heavy downpours, causing frequent flooding in Hanoi and the delta. By mid September, however, the rains are petering out, and from October onwards it's perfect sightseeing weather.
Central Coast Vietnam Climate
The coastal region from Hanoi south to Hué lies in the typhoon belt. Around Hué, typhoons seem most prevalent in April and May, while further north the season generally lasts from July to November. However, typhoons are incredibly difficult to predict and it really is a matter of luck - or bad luck, rather - if you are caught. Flights are usually only disrupted for a matter of hours, but in recent years the main road and rail routes heading south have been cut by floods at least once during the typhoon season. The good news is that they usually get everything moving again incredibly quickly - within four or five days, depending on the severity of the damage.
The central region of Vietnam has a notoriously wet climate, particularly around Hué, where the annual average rainfall is a generous 3m. The so-called "dry" season lasts from February to May, though you'll need an umbrella even then. After this it gets wetter and hotter (av temps 30°C) until the rainy season begins in earnest in September, gradually easing off from November through January. Winter temperatures average a pleasant 20°C or above.
Southern Vietnam Climate
Southern Vietnam is blessed with a more equitable - and predictable - climate. Here the dry season lasts from December to late April/May, and the rains from May through November. Most of the rain falls in brief afternoon downpours, so you can still get out and about, though flooding can be a problem in the delta. Daytime temperatures rarely fall below 20°C, occasionally reaching 40°C in the hottest months (March to May). Once the rains start, humidity climbs to an enervating 80%.
Central Highland of Vietnam Climate
The central highlands follow roughly the same weather pattern as the southern delta. In the rainy season (May-November) roads are regularly washed out, but it can also be very beautiful at this time, with tumbling rivers, waterfalls and misty landscapes. You just have to build a bit more flexibility into your schedule.
What is the time difference in Vietnam?
Vietnam is fifteen hours ahead of Los Angeles, twelve hours ahead of New York and seven hours ahead of London, one hour behind Perth and three hours behind Sydney (give or take an hour during daylight saving time).
What do I need to know regarding visas to enter Vietnam?
The most important thing is to make sure your Vietnam visa is stamped with the correct dates and the correct entry and exit points. The standard tourist visa is valid for a period of up to 30 days. If you're going for less than 30 days you can either specify the exact dates, but it is probably best to ask for the maximum period to give yourself more flexibility. Processing normally takes between a week and ten days (some embassies offer an express service for an extra fee), but longer for overseas Vietnamese. To be on the safe side, allow several weeks as mistakes are common and inexplicable delays often occur.
If you need to extend your stay for any reason, it is relatively easy to apply for a visa renewal at present.
The standard entry and exit point is "Noi Bai/Tan Son Nhat", ie. you can enter and depart via either Hanoi or HCMC airports. If you plan to enter via one of the land border crossings, then you should specify the name of the crossing when you apply for your visa. Check what you eventually get because some Vietnamese embassies seem reluctant to issue anything other than the standard entry/exit points. If you can't persuade the embassy to give you the entry point you need, you could try getting it changed in the neighbouring country. If that fails and you turn up at the border with the wrong entry point, you'll either get sent back, or - more likely - asked to pay a fine.
The same applies for exit points, though this is less of a problem as it's fairly easily to get them changed in Hanoi or HCMC. Most registered travel agents, including the popular "travellers' cafés", can handle this for you - you can't go to the immigration police in person. Rates vary, so shop around. It should take three or four days to process.
What medical precautions do I need to take when traveling to Vietnam?
It is important to visit a doctor or specialist travel clinic as early as possible (preferably two months) before departure to allow time for the recommended courses of vaccinations. This is particularly important if you suffer from any medical condition and/or are travelling with young children.
At the time of writing, no vaccinations are required for Vietnam (with the exception of yellow fever if you are travelling directly from an area where the disease is endemic). However, typhoid and hepatitis A vaccinations are normally recommended, and it's worth checking that you are up to date with boosters for tetanus, polio etc. Other injections to consider, depending on the season and risk of exposure, are hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, meningitis and rabies. It is best to discuss these with your doctor.
There is obviously a lot that you can do to protect yourself by taking a few common-sense precautions. In tropical climates it's easy to get run down, so one of the keys is to keep your resistance high by getting plenty of rest and allowing time to acclimatise to the heat, humidity and unfamiliar diet. It's important to eat well, especially peeled fresh fruits, and to keep up the intake of liquids - bottled water is readily available and hot tea is offered at the drop of a hat.
Personal hygiene is also crucial. Wash your hands frequently, especially before eating, and clean all cuts, scratches and bites carefully. Note that tapwater may be infected, especially during floods, so use an antiseptic spray on open wounds after washing.
Malaria is present in Vietnam. However, at the time of writing both Hanoi and HCMC have very low incidences, while the northern delta and coastal regions of the south and centre are also considered relatively safe. The main danger areas are the highlands and the rural areas, where Plasmodium falciparum, the most dangerous strain of malaria, is prevalent. Your doctor will advise on which, if any, anti-malaria tablets you should take. <
Again you can help yourself considerably by not getting bitten in the first place. (Other mosquito-borne diseases include dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis.) Mosquitoes are most active at dawn and dusk, when you should wear long sleeves, trousers and socks, avoid dark colours and perfumes (which apparently attract mosquitoes), and apply repellent to any exposed skin. Sprays or lotions containing around 40% DEET (diethyltoluamide) are the most effective, but it is toxic - keep it away from the eyes and open wounds - and not recommended for young children. Other, less worrying alternatives are Mosi-Guard Natural, X-Gnat or Gurkha repellents. Most hotels provide mosquito nets where necessary; make sure you tuck the edges in well and check for holes in the mesh. Air conditioning and fans also help keep the little blighters at bay.
When it comes to eating, the most important thing is to choose places that are busy and look well-scrubbed, and to stick to fresh, thoroughly cooked foods. Despite appearances, often the small local restaurants with a high turnover of just one or two dishes are safer than expensive, Western-style places. Restaurants where the food is cooked in front of you - for example, steaming bowls of pho soup at a street stall - are usually a good bet, as well as being lots of fun. However, steer clear of shellfish, peeled fruit, salads and raw vegetables. On the other hand, yoghurt and ice cream from reputable outlets in the main cities shouldn't cause problems.
Bottled and canned drinks, such as Coke, 7UP, Fanta and beer, are widely available even in the countryside. Bottled water is also plentiful and very cheap, though check the seal before you buy and if the water looks at all cloudy, give it a miss. It's not a good idea to have ice in your drinks and never drink water from the tap.
If you do fall ill, pharmacies in Hanoi and HCMC stock a decent range of imported medicines (check they are not past their "use-by" date). Both these cities also now have good, international-class medical facilities. Elsewhere, local hospitals will be able to treat minor ailments, but for anything more serious head back to Hanoi or HCMC.
Finally, don't get paranoid! By coming prepared and taking a few simple precautions, you're unlikely to come down with anything worse than a cold or a quick dose of travellers'diarrhea.
How safe is Vietnam?
Vietnam is a relatively safe country to visit. As a woman, I have travelled extensively in Vietnam on my own with absolutely no problems. Despite people's fears, there is almost no animosity towards Americans.
That said, there are increasing instances of theft, especially in HCMC where pickpockets and snatch thieves on motorbikes are the worst menace. The best tip is to be vigilant at all times. Often cute kids or old grannies have deft fingers. Leave all valuables (expensive watches, jewellery, glasses, etc.) at home, and don't even wear flash costume jewellery. Make sure you have a firm grip on cameras and shoulder bags at all times and never leave anything you value lying around unattended. I would also not advise taking cyclos late at night, especially in HCMC or as a female on her own.
The other problem area is on the trains, especially the night trains from Hanoi to Lao Cai. Again, make sure all your luggage is safely locked, preferably stowed out of sight or attached to an immovable object, and don't leave things near open windows. It's also wise not to accept food or drink from people you don't know (there are reports of one or two people being drugged and robbed this way).
You might also have read warnings about unexploded shells, mines and other ordnance lying around. This is still the case in the DMZ, around My Son and certain border areas, particularly along the Chinese border. It is advisable to visit such areas only with an experienced local guide and never stray off well-trodden footpaths anywhere in Vietnam.
Finally, there's the traffic. Trying to cross the street in Hanoi or HCMC is an adventure in itself! You'll be faced with a tightly-packed stream of scooters, bikes and cyclos which looks completely chaotic at first. But don't give up! Either walk till you find some traffic lights or just go for it. The key is to walk slowly and steadily out into the traffic. As long as you keep a steady pace and make your movements clear, the traffic will flow round you. Problems arise if you stop or move too quickly and the drivers/riders can't anticipate your progress.
Unfortunately, driving standards are pretty poor. Vehicles are badly maintained and the roads are becoming ever more crowded, especially Highway 1. As a result the number of serious accidents on the highways is on the increase.
But don't get paranoid! Thousands of people visit Vietnam each year without experiencing any problems whatsoever. It's also worth bearing in mind that the situation in Vietnam is certainly no worse than many big European and American cities. Just take the same precautions you would in any unfamiliar place, and you should be fine.
Is language a problem in Vietnam, or can I get by in English?
Everyone in Vietnam seems to be learning English. Standards are relatively high considering the country has only been open for just over a decade. Most young people and many of those working in the tourist industry speak sufficient English to communicate at a basic level. You'll find more and better English-speakers in the south - a legacy of the American presence - but even here don't expect to find English spoken at small restaurants, in markets or anywhere off the tourist trail. For such situations it will help to have a basic phrasebook.If you're having real difficulties communicating, it sometimes helps to write things down in English. As a last resort, someone will probably go and find an English speaker to help sort things out.
Though you will certainly be able to get by in English, it's worth learning a few Vietnamese phrases before you go. The pronunciation is a bit tricky, but otherwise Vietnamese is not a particularly complicated language. A few standard phrases (such as hello, thank you, how much is it? and goodbye) always go down well. It will also help if you learn the numbers, though this can be circumvented by asking people to write down prices, times etc.Should I take my money to Vietnam in cash or travellers' cheques?
Vietnam's official currency is the dong, which can not be purchased outside Vietnam. The main banks in Hanoi and HCMC can handle a fairly broad range of currencies nowadays, but the dollar is still the most widely accepted.
It's a good idea to change a small amount at the airport into Vietnamese dong or arrive with at least some small denomination dollar bills ($1s, $5s and $10s) to get you from the airport into town and to a bank. Even if they're open, the airport exchange desks offer unfavourable rates. If you do bring dollars cash into Vietnam, make sure they are not badly tattered as they may be refused.
Where can I change Vietnamese money?
You can change cash and travellers' cheques at exchange desks in big hotels and at authorised foreign exchange banks in the main cities. Among the banks, Vietcombank usually offers the best exchange rates and charges the lowest commission (around 1-2%). Note that commission rates are slightly lower if changing travellers' cheques into dong rather than dollars. Vietcombank does not levy commission when changing dollars cash into dong, though some other banks do. It's worth bearing in mind that you might get a slightly better exchange rate for $100 and $50 notes than for smaller denominations.
Outside the main cities and tourist areas, authorised foreign exchange banks are few and far between. So if you're heading off the beaten path, stock up with enough cash (dollars and dong) to last the trip. Wherever you are, you'll always find someone willing to change dollars cash into dong, though rates will vary.
When receiving dong, you'll be presented with a huge pile of notes. The largest bill is only 50,000d, so bear this in mind when changing $100! Refuse any badly torn notes (you'll find it hard to get rid of them - the same goes for dollars) and ask for a mix of denominations so that you always have a few low-value notes in hand. Make sure you always have a stock of small notes so that you don't have to worry about change.
How widely accepted are credit cards in Vietnam?
Major credit cards (Visa, American Express, JCB, MasterCard) are gradually becoming more widely accepted in Vietnam, particularly in Hanoi and HCMC. All top level and many mid-level hotels accept them, as do a growing number of restaurants and upmarket shops catering to the tourist trade. But watch out for the extra taxes they wap on when using a credit card - these can amount to an additional 5 percent. Outside the major cities you will have to rely on cash and travellers' cheques.
Can I get cash on my credit card or debit card in Vietnam?
Debit cards are usually cheaper. Check with your bank ahead of time. Some credit cards charge a large fee for cash. Cash advances on credit and debit cards are available at the central Vietcombank in Hanoi, HCMC and other major cities, for which you will be charged around 4%.
Hanoi and HCMC also boast 24hr ATMs where you can withdraw cash on MasterCard, Visa and other cards in the Cirrus/Plus networks. In Hanoi, go to the ANZ Bank beside Hoan Kiem Lake; in HCMC both ANZ Bank and HKSB have ATMs.
Read Vietnam Travel FAQ Part 2